One great thing about writing is that it is free. You might need a computer or at least paper and a pen, but after that, you are free to write literally anything you want and as much as you want.
However, that is not true if you want people to actually read your writing. As I’ve said before, even if someone does not pay to read your work, they are still using their time to read your work. You also want them to finish your story. So it is best to write efficiently.
This was not as important in the past. An example is David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens. Here is the first paragraph of the book:
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens
Basically all he says here is that he was born. The next three paragraphs are even longer and more off topic. It is good at showing the character’s voice, but you would not be able to get this kind of writing published today, I would guess. We live in a much fast-paced world where people don’t have patience for too much extraneous material.
Efficient writing is often described as “tight”. This means everything in the story has a purpose and helps the main story in some way. This doesn’t mean you need to have terse writing. Terse writing is very minimal with almost no description or dialogue. Tight writing can have lots of characters and description and be a long story. It just means that everything in the story earns its keep. Let’s look at some examples.
This is a big area where developing writers are not as efficient as they could be. Each character in the story should have a purpose and a role that no other character can fill. If you find that there are characters that basically do the same thing in the story, see if you can combine them into one character. For example, if you have a story where the main character has three friends, make sure that all of them have a unique place in the story. You can tell this by taking away one and seeing if the story suffers. If a character only has one reason for existing in the story (for example, their uncle owns the haunted store where the characters meet), see if you can give that reason to another character. This will cut down on the number of characters the reader has to remember and the number of characters you have to develop.
An exception to this is with groups of people that act as a single character. One example of this is Fred and George Weasley in the Harry Potter books. While you might be able to give a long list of differences between Harry and Ron, for example, you wouldn’t be able to give many between Fred and George. However, the fact that they are twins is part of their character, so you can’t just get rid of one without taking that away. In most ways they act as a single character, always doing things together and having similar personalities.
An extreme example is the dwarves in The Hobbit. There are 13 dwarves in the group and while some of them have unique aspects, only Thorin is really developed as a separate character. You could cut down the number of them but one important point in the story is that there are a lot of them. The 12 dwarves (all but Thorin) mostly act as a single character for the purposes of the story. We can see this by the fact that the story often talks about “the dwarves” to lump them all together.
There are not usually as many different settings as characters in a story but it is important to look at where your scenes take place and why they take place there. Instead of your characters meeting at a different coffee shop each time, it is better to have a single one and develop that setting to become more a part of the story (unless there is a good reason for them hopping around.)
George Lucas said that with Star Wars he always tried to have three main settings for his movies that would be quite different from each other and would show the parts of the movie clearly. For example, The Empire Strikes Back starts on the frozen planet of Hoth, then goes to the swamps of Dagoba, then finishes in the futuristic Cloud City. This is a very tight way of handling setting and makes it memorable for the audience.
An exception is in a quest story where the characters are going from place to place and not spending long in any one setting. However, as with anything, make sure that each setting is unique and moves the story forward. Which lead us to…
The last one we’ll look at is plot. It is important to make sure that everything that happens is somehow supporting the main story or theme.
One place where stories are often not as tight as they could be is with sub-plots. These are any secondary story lines that help out the main story. For example, in a story about an alien posing as a teacher, the main character’s romance with the girl next door is a sub-plot.
It’s important to make sure that sub-plots help out the main story but also that each one has a satisfactory conclusion of its own. One thing I do when I’m editing my novels is make a chart of all the scenes and the plot threads that are involved in that scene. This way you can look at each plot thread and see if it gets enough time, if it is really important to the overall story, and if it gets resolved. Sometimes you’ll notice that a writer seems to forget about a sub-plot and it’s never mentioned again in the story.
Another place where it is important to make sure the plot is efficient is in stories with recurring elements. This could be a murder mystery where several people are murdered throughout the book; a quest story like I mentioned in the last section where the characters visit a series of places; or a war story with a series of battles. It is perfectly fine to write this kind of story, but you need to make sure that each of the recurring scenes is unique and moves the story forward. If two similar scenes have the same purpose and if you can get rid of one of the scenes without hurting the story, then you probably should.
How to Tighten up a Story
This is all easy to say, but it is much harder to do this with your own writing. I would say you should have these ideas in mind when you are writing the rough draft of a story but this is more important in the editing stage. Here are some ideas to make sure your writing is efficient and your story is tightly written.
1. Graph your story
There are lots of ways you could do this, but it is good to lay out your story, either in a spreadsheet or cue cards. For each scene, look at the characters present, the setting, and what is happening. Having everything laid out will help you see if you have six characters that each are in one scene each, or if there are two scenes that are basically the same.
2. Get an editor
This is also very important for seeing if you can make the writing more efficient. The problem is that you, as the writer, are very close to the story, so it is good to have another person read the story and give you an outside perspective. They will be able to see easier when something is not necessary and what parts you could take out or combine. If possible, it’s best to get an actual editor who has been trained to do this, but at least get someone whose opinion you would trust.
A note of caution though: if you are going to get someone to edit your book, you need to be prepared that they will give you criticism and will suggest changing parts of your story. One of the hardest parts of having someone edit your writing is detaching yourself from the story enough to make (often painful) changes. Remember, the goal is a better, tighter story.
Now it’s your turn
- Next time you are reading fiction (or watching a movie/TV show), look at the characters and setting they use. What is the purpose of each one for the story? Could any of them be combined or replaced without hurting the story? Does each scene move the story ahead?
- Look at a piece of writing you have written and give it the same test. Does each character, setting and plot point have a unique and important job to do in the overall story?
If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.